Light meters and why I don’t use them

Do you use a light meter for photography? Here's why I don't use them.

How you're limiting your creativity

A recent post about light meters on my Facebook page created a lot of debate and many photographers defended their use, which of course is absolutely OK.

I’m not saying you can’t use them, I’m only here to explain why for me they are a waste of money and can negatively affect creativity. Please read on if you have an open mind!

First let’s look a little back further in time. I first became a working professional photographer back in the mid 90’s and I opened my first studio around 1997. Back then a Minolta IV light meter was an essential piece of my kit, in fact I wouldn’t have been able to work without one. The simple reason that back then in the days of film you’d be shooting blind. Even in the studio when we were able to swap our 5x4 film backs temporarily for a polaroid ‘check’ shot, you’d still rely on a light-meter to get you in the ball park before you started wasting time and costly polaroid check shots.

So there you have it I used a light meter for at least 10 years, from 1994-2005. Then in 2005 I stopped. This abrupt stop came about because I purchased my first Hasselblad digital camera, a 22mp H1, a camera that finally delivered close to the quality of my Mamiya 6x7cm medium format film camera (but not my 5x4 inch Sinar). The cessation of the light meter came about because now I’d switched to a predominantly tethered shooting setup with super resolution preview shots and the ability to measure values on screen. When working with digital images (or film that has been scanned) we are dealing with the three additive colour channels ‘RGB’ and each of those ‘colors’ has a value of between 0 and 255.

Chanel lipsticks by Karl Taylor

Chanel lipsticks by Karl Taylor

At Red 0, Green 0 and Blue 0, we have pure black. and at RGB 255, 255, 255 we have pure white. On a tethered set up any one pixel can be measured to reveal its combination of values that equates to anything from pure black to pure white or grey or a choice of thousands of hues at 255 different luminosity values. Those combined hues and luminosity values create ‘color’ and total about 16 million choices.

To give you an idea of the accuracy, with most light meters like my old Minolta IV, I could measure light in increments of 1/10th of an f-stop, however on screen tethered without a light meter a 1 RGB value change is around 1/30th of an f-stop change. Therefore by measuring RGB values on screen I have a greater degree of accuracy and I can record those values to match against a future recreation of a photograph if necessary, so the 'repeatability' argument also goes out of the window for a light meter. But and this is a big ‘but’, even with those enhanced levels of measuring accuracy that’s not why I stopped using a light meter.

2 Reasons Why You Don't Need a Light Meter for Photography. 

The two most important reasons I stopped using a light meter are creativity and speed. Many people claim that a light meter helps them get in the ball park quicker when setting up their lights. For me that isn’t the case, the actual time it takes me to measure with a light meter and fire the flashes is longer than taking a test shot and in nearly all cases I can evaluate the light visually or from an RGB measurement on screen and arrive at the desired flash exposure within one or two more test shots without having to measure again or again. This is made even more efficient from the fact that I could even control the flash power of each flash from my tethered shooting panel if I wanted to. So for me that answers the ‘speed and efficiency’ side of the argument. But again that’s still not my main reason for stopping using a light meter, my main reason is ‘creativity’. Let’s explore this further.

    Falling Girl by Karl Taylor
    Falling Girl by Karl Taylor
    Prada Crater by Karl Taylor
    Prada Crater by Karl Taylor

    What is ‘creativity’ in photography. Well from my perspective it is many things. It is the photographers ability to solve problems and find solutions. It’s the decision making that will arrive at an image that delivers information and invokes emotion. It is the knowledge of ‘human visual perception’ that dictates how a viewer will process an image in their visual cortex and how their visual systems perceive attributes like contrast and color and how the arrangement of the image and choice of subject will contribute to the effectiveness of that process. This is the process where ‘science meets art’ and it is a complex one that Tim Flach and I have explored in depth and recently in our new workshop, 'A Visual Journey'.

    So why should that negate my requirement for a light meter? Well to put it simply it’s a bit like letting the plane fly on autopilot or letting AI (artificial intelligence) write a story for you. It takes away (or reduces) ones ability to make decisions based purely on the emotional reaction. And for me this is very important. Take for example a recipe created using only the exact correct and amount of ingredients or a painting created in a ‘color by numbers’ process. In such cases the same result will be arrived at every time because that’s what you’ve been told to do. Using a light meter is like being told what to do and when you are told what to do you have already arrived at a particular ‘look’ with a bias of belief that that’s what it should be. For me that destroys creativity and I wouldn’t be able to produce the type of work that I do: https://karltaylor.com/overview

      Portrait by Karl Taylor
      Portrait by Karl Taylor
      Portrait by Karl Taylor

      My very process of working is a visual one. I’m making many of my decisions based on instinct and knowledge of the level of light that works visually. Photography of course is a visual art and its effectiveness is driven by a photographers ability to deliver information, invoke emotion and hold the viewers attention. My creativity works better when I make all of those decisions based on visual feedback (my eyes and visual cortex) and my assessment of emotional perception (processing in my amygdala, hypothalamus, left frontal cortex and hippocampus). As such I prefer to start each image without any bias or opinion that a light meter might offer.

      Finally there is another reason and this is best demonstrated in a video module where I clearly demonstrate that a light meter can in many cases be misleading and lead you on the wrong path. If you don’t believe me watch the video or just read some of the comments from those that have viewed this particular video.

      Now of course I’m not saying you can’t use a light meter, hey if it makes you happy and you think it impresses your clients then please go ahead. My opinion is only my opinion but I do think as an experienced photographer and trusted educator that it also comes from both sides of the argument, because I previously used a light meter for the first half of my career, but I also haven’t used one for what I consider to be the more creative second half of my career!

      If you still think it’s an essential tool to creativity then find the top 10 photographers in the world, people like Rankin, Nadav Kander, Tim Flach or Marco Grob. Do they use light meters?

        Ocean pollution awareness image by Karl Taylor
        Ocean pollution awareness image by Karl Taylor

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